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Monday, August 27, 2012

The Little Known History of Detroit Bluegrass

Guest Commentary by Hugh Fader

Editor's Note:  SeMiBluegrass welcomes submissions from all our readers.  Here's an excellent article by Hugh Fader on the History of Bluegrass in Detroit.   Good Job Hugh!

CKLW Press Photo: Sonny & Bobby Osborne, Jimmy Martin
When people think of Detroit music they usually think Motown or the early garage rock rumblings of The MC5 and The Stooges. Or possibly as the home of Jack White and location of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. What's not well known is that for a brief period during the 1950s, Detroit was also a hotbed of bluegrass activity. This is documented by Neil Rosenberg in Bluegrass: A History – a great book with loads of facts about bluegrass music. (And you know this is a serious book because there's a colon in the title.)

Sonny Osborne on WJR
The immigrants from Appalachia that poured into the city to work in the auto factories in early to mid-20th century brought their musical tastes with them. And this provided a ready-made audience for the music that was soon to be called bluegrass. Most notably, former Bluegrass Boy Jimmy Martin teamed up with The Osborne Brothers for The Lazy Ranch Barn Dance on WJR radio and CKLW television. Later, Jimmy and the Osbornes split. While still in Detroit, Jimmy formed his band The Sunny Mountain Boys.

Wayside Records Ad in Billboard Magazine
There was even a bluegrass record company headquartered in Detroit: brothers Wade and Wiley Birchfield's Wayside Records. The Birchfields were songwriters and players themselves and active on the Detroit bluegrass scene. In fact, Wade wrote Jimmy Martin's first single “Hit Parade of Love.” In his book Rosenberg shows a small ad for Wayside Records that appeared in a 1957 issue of Billboard. There are two things I find interesting about this. First, the ad is subtitled “Music Blue Grass Style.” This is one of the first documented commercial uses of the term bluegrass. Second, the ad gives the address of the record company (the Birchfield's house) as 1298 St. Jean Avenue, Detroit 14, Mich. Sadly, Google Street View shows that this is now a vacant lot off of Jefferson Avenue

Wayside Records Logo?

It's really great that we have a growing family of bluegrass musicians here in the Detroit area. And hats off to John Bayerl for SemiBluegrass.com and his other tireless promotional work. As a born and raised Detroiter, I love that there are venues inside and outside of the city limits to hear this great music.


Rosenberg, Neil V. (1993), Bluegrass: A History.  University of Illinois Press.

Billboard Magazine, April 16, 1955 article discussing Osborne/Martin on Detroit radio and TV

Note: this is a link to the record company's google map

Link on Banjo Hangout to Sonny Osborne identifying photo from CKLW

Link to site where I found Wayside Records logo. Not positive it's the same Wayside.

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